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The Wrong “Coup” Debate

The Obama administration endured some mockery when it tried to refer to antiterror efforts as “overseas contingency operations” and terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters.” But there have been far worse symptoms of the same affliction, such as when Susan Rice, at the time working in the Clinton administration, reportedly worried about calling the Rwandan genocide a “genocide,” reasoning that “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?”

Euphemism and terminology are again at the forefront of foreign-policy decision making, this time, as Max referenced yesterday, with regard to whether the U.S. should continue supplying Egypt with military and economic aid. If you support continuing the aid but don’t want to cross the U.S. law that says the Egyptian coup would automatically trigger a suspension of aid, what are your options? The first is to do what the Obama administration is doing, and not call it a coup. But some congressional Republicans have a second idea, according to Reuters:

U.S. lawmakers will begin to vote as soon as next week on legislation that could continue aid to Egypt even if the Obama administration determines that the ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi was a military coup, lawmakers and aides said on Thursday….

Republican U.S. Representative Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of the aid, said her panel could consider allowing more flexibility, such as language that would allow the aid to continue if doing so were deemed to be in the U.S. national security interest.

Granger said she is not considering changing the coup language but that it was possible for Congress to change it to make it more flexible.

“There is not a waiver (provision) in the coup legislation,” Granger told Reuters in an interview. “That could be changed, however, if the Congress says we are going to allow a waiver.”

This may sound like an easy out, but there are drawbacks. Giving the president the power to waive foreign-policy laws when he doesn’t want to follow them renders the law itself extraneous: laws, like ethical principles, prove their worth when they are difficult to heed. The granting of a waiver for a specific purpose may sound limited, but it sets a precedent that will be repeated. Whether something is in the nation’s interest or constitutes a crisis is open to interpretation.

But leaving the law as-is presents its own problems, not least of which is that our officials begin to sound ridiculous by never calling anything by its name. That eventually takes its toll on policy as well, because it renders governance in Orwellian terms and habituates the practice of intentionally misleading the public. And the president is the elected commander in chief and deserves a certain amount of deference in conducting foreign policy according to his convictions.

But the Obama administration has more to worry about with perceived neutrality than whether to call this a coup. Supporters of the administration’s foreign policy have defended Obama on realist grounds that America should work with whomever comes out on top of the power struggle in Egypt rather than try to influence the outcome. When the Arab Spring first swept through Egypt, the administration waited for the dust to settle and then accepted the facts on the ground. But the military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi has signaled that Egypt is in the midst of something far more dangerous and unstable than a simple power struggle. It seems to have entered a cycle of unrest and popular rebellion. The dust just won’t settle.

That’s why, strategically, whether the administration calls Morsi’s overthrow a “coup” is beside the point. If Obama calls it a coup, he will appear to side with Morsi. If he doesn’t, he will appear to side with the military. Suspending the aid now will send the wrong signal, because whatever the president does will be seen as a response to the events that immediately preceded it. He needn’t be seen as for or against the military, but he ought to be clearly opposed to perpetual military rule or antidemocratic backsliding. The point, then, is not about identifying coups, but preventing them and the conditions in which they materialize.


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